Visions of Mars

Part of the Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration exhibition.

For centuries, people dreamed of discovering intelligent life on Mars. Early telescopes seemed to give glimpses of plant life fluctuating with the seasons, seas of water or perhaps even an entire civilization of canal builders. Speculation ran wild...


c. 1000 BC: People were fascinated by Mars long before the invention of the telescope. Comparing its reddish color to blood, the ancient Greeks and Romans named the planet after their god of war--Ares in Greek, Mars in Latin.

Mars - God of War
The Trustees of the British Museum

1659: Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens studied Mars through a telescope and sketched shifting dark patches (below) that looked to him like vegetation.

Mars - Huygens

Completed in 1787, Sir William Herschel's telescope was as tall as a four-story building and relied on a 48-inch (1.2 meter) mirror that weighed nearly a ton.

Mars - Herschel Telescope
Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

1784: British Royal Astronomer Sir William Herschel identified several "seas" and wrote that Mars's inhabitants "probably enjoy a situation similar to our own."

Mars - Oceans
SPL/Photo Researchers

1877: Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported finding straight lines on the surface of Mars, which he called canali, or "channels"--later interpreted by some as canals.

Mars - Canals
Collection Kharbine-Tapabor/The Bridgeman Art Library


1908: This globe shows Mars as described by American astronomer Percival Lowell a century ago. Lowell's maps showed many canals, which he thought were constructed by intelligent Martians to carry water from the ice caps to irrigate their farms. However, better telescopes later revealed no straight lines or canals.

Mars - Lowell Globe